Everyone has a backstory, it’s just that Sinead Russell’s involves a few more twists, turns and tabloid fodder than most teenagers’.
The Canadian record holder in both the 100-metre and 200-metre backstroke grew up in an eminent – and controversial – Ontario swimming family, of which she is now the most recent Olympian.
Russell, 18, finished a strong second in the 100-metre event behind 2008 Olympian Julia Wilkinson, who set a personal-best time of 59.85 seconds Wednesday at the Parc Olympique pool – both swam faster than the Olympic qualifying time and will go to London this summer.
“I’ve been training basically my whole life for this, to have it finally happen feels amazing,” said Russell, who finished in 1 minute 0.45 seconds, well-off her national record.
Asked how long she’s harboured the dream of going to the Games, Russell said: “Ever since I can remember. My brothers were swimming when I was born, I got into racing when I was 3 or 4, it’s been forever.”
Her older brother, Colin, who is also competing this week, was on the 2008 Canadian squad in Beijing.
Russell’s mother, Erin, coaches athletes at the Dolphins Swim Club in Oakville, Ont. – she is her daughter’s coach of record.
But the best-known member of the family (there are six children, five of them swimmers) is undoubtedly patriarch Cecil Russell, a convicted steroid trafficker who has also been embroiled in an international conspiracy to import ecstasy, and who once admitted to helping burn the body of a man murdered by one of his criminal acquaintances.
He has twice been banned for life from coaching – his wife’s swim club recently had its operations suspended for five months because he was still involved in coaching athletes.
The elder Russell, a coach of considerable renown, wasn’t on hand to see his daughter’s exploit, he is forbidden from entering the premises at Swimming Canada events.
Because of her home club’s suspension, Russell raced under another banner – Toronto Blue Waves – at the national trials. It’s also a situation that has forced her to bounce around various pools in the Ontario capital in recent months.
“We train out of Toronto or anywhere in the GTA that has pools open when we need it,” she said. “I’m used to it, sometimes the commute is 45 minutes, but it’s worth it to get the training in.”
To the question of whether her family’s notoriety has made life more difficult for her, Russell said: “Not at all. It’s made me tougher. What I’ve been through, it’s made me more determined to do what I do.”
If Russell was seen going into this week as a possible Olympic finalist, her teammate Wilkinson, who participated in the 2008 Olympic 200-metre individual medley final and set three Canadian records, must now be as well.
The lanky Victoria resident almost ripped one of her fingernails off in the morning heats when she ran into the lane rope, but nevertheless posted the best qualifying time.
“I broke my nail, which was really sad for me,” the 24-year-old said with a laugh, “but the good thing is I did that, but I was still going in first so that really helped my confidence. I was like, ‘Man, I smoked the lane line and I still had a good swim, so nothing can stop me.’ ”
Also on Day 2 of the Olympic trials, Quebec-born backstroker Charles Francis earned a ticket to the 2012 Games. Cheered on by a boisterous hometown crowd, the 23-year-old banished the memories of missing out on the 2008 Olympics.
“I have no idea what just happened,” he said. “I didn’t see anything, I didn’t hear anything.”
There were also a couple of upsets: National-record holder Stefan Hirniak missed out in the 200-metre butterfly despite posting the fastest qualifying time. He finished fourth in the final, won by David Sharpe, an unheralded 21-year-old from Halifax.
In the women’s 400-metre individual medley, Montreal native Stephanie Horner, who now trains in Victoria, beat 2008 Olympian Alexa Komarnycky to earn a ticket to England.